What do you do first? When you emerge from the gloom of the opening dungeon and see Skyrim stretching out before you, it's the first decision you have to make. You've heard that you can find work in the nearby town of Riverwood, but that's just a suggestion. You can go anywhere and do anything. The world is yours.
It's the moment that has always defined the Elder Scrolls series. That palpable feeling of freedom and adventure as you gaze across a vast, beautiful landscape. Skyrim is not a great leap from Oblivion, or even Morrowind, but it is the finest chapter in the series to date: an unforgettable journey into another world, and a bracing emancipation from the linearity that typifies modern gaming.
For tips read our Skyrim guide.
One of the biggest changes is how you create your hero. By the time you'd escaped the sewers in Oblivion you had already decided your class and base stats. When you start Skyrim, the only things you get to choose are your race, sex and appearance. The editor is fantastic, frankly, with a wealth of sliders and presets, as well as something sorely missing from Oblivion - a large selection of beards.
We create a tall, imposing Nord, the native race of Skyrim, with broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes and blonde hair. Each race - of which there are ten - has its own special ability, which includes passive effects that are always active, and spells you can use once a day. Nords, for example, have 50% frost resistance and a Battle Cry ability that makes enemies flee in terror, while Argonians can breathe underwater and cast Histskin to rapidly regenerate their health.
Still, besides these initial bonuses, how your character develops depends entirely on how you play the game. Say you use greatswords a lot in combat; this will see your two-handed weapon stats improve every time you strike an enemy. Or maybe you prefer to keep your distance and use bows; every arrow that hits its target will improve your archery stats.
Our Nord is skilled with one-handed weapons and destruction magic, meaning we can toast enemies with fireballs while simultaneously using melee attacks. You can mix and match weapons and spells by assigning them to each of your hands, which are controlled independently, and while every combination has its own strengths and weaknesses, it's a smart, intuitive system, and allows you to create multi-class characters on the fly.
Which is particularly useful, because most of your time in Skyrim is spent in battle. And yet, because there are so many ways to play - and so many spells, abilities and weapons to combo - every encounter feels different.
It's, of course, still possible to avoid traditional combat altogether, sneaking through an area undetected, silently killing enemies without alerting their allies. The stealth isn't much better than it was in Oblivion, with twitchy AI that becomes aggressive way too easily, but it gets better when your archery and sneaking skills increase, and you find enchanted equipment, like boots that muffle your footsteps.
The same kind of variety marks out the magic too. You begin the game with a selection of basic, low level spells, but more can be learned by purchasing books from mages, or finding scrolls. It's worth the investment.
Each of the four schools - alteration, destruction, illusion and restoration - have individual strengths, and combining different types of spell can make you incredibly powerful. You can paralyse enemies and hack away at them as they lie frozen and helpless, then bring them back to life and have them fight alongside you. Or you can just focus on keeping yourself alive, restoring your health and buffing your armour between swings of your sword.